Despite President Ebrahim Raisi’s election pledge to upgrade Iran’s internet infrastructure, his hardline administration – in line with other state organs – appears to have embraced tough policies intending to deny Iranians free access to cyberspace.

Recently, Iranians have reported disrupted access to the internet and complained about slow connection and repeated glitches on popular social media platforms. Authorities dismiss these criticisms as unfounded user complaints, shifting the blame onto media hype and detractors of the administration. What worries most internet users, academic elite, political activists, and online business owners, is the possibility of enactment and enforcement of an ambitious and controversial motion by the conservative-led parliament, under the title of “Cyberspace Protection Bill.”

The Cyberspace Protection Bill is believed to be aimed at restricting access to the internet.

Contrary to what its name suggests, the bill is believed to be aimed at restricting access to the internet. Legislators have been debating the bill behind closed doors only because of a wave of unprecedented opposition within Iranian society. Yet, even though the public disapproval includes members of the conservative faction closely allied with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, it has fallen on deaf ears. The main idea behind this bill is to work out a mechanism to manage and control major Internet services.

Enactment and implementation of this anti-Internet bill are expected to widely restrict access to popular social media and messaging services, chief among them Instagram and WhatsApp. These services, among others, have been instrumental in raising public awareness about corruption, discrimination, and failures of the Islamic regime.

The draft legislation has been billed as a “coup against the Internet.”

More than ever before, these latest restrictive legislative efforts have encouraged Iranians from various walks of life to consider emigrating abroad.

Speaking under the pseudonym of Saman Safizadeh for fear of regime backlash, the manager of a large IT company told Inside Arabia that “Under circumstances where brilliant talents in the country are combating many restrictions to survive, generate value, and create new solutions, the biggest harm inflicted by such bills would be to dent hopes and further encourage migration.”

Spurring Migration “An Act of Treason”

Iran has one of the highest rates of brain drain in the world, with thousands of university graduates and skilled workers leaving the country for new pastures every year.

According to the July 2021 edition of Iran Migration Outlook, published by the Policymaking Research Center of the prestigious Sharif University of Technology, Iranian student migration jumped from 19,000 in 2003 to 56,000 individuals in 2018, i.e. a three-fold growth. Iran ranked 14th among 195 nations in terms of the number of nationals with asylum-seeking status.

Meanwhile, data available on the migration of scientific and academic elites, particularly graduates of engineering and basic sciences, has reached worrying levels. In the 2000s, 37 percent of winners of medals in the international academic competition known as the international Olympiad left Iran for good.

Iran’s top leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei sharply criticized those who “encourage young elite to leave the country.”

News of growing scientific and academic elite migration elicited a harsh reaction from Iran’s top leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who last October, sharply criticized those who “encourage young elite to leave the country,” which according to him amounted to an “act of treason” and was part of the soft war waged by “colonialists” against the Islamic Republic.

In addition, reports of an ever-increasing number of departures among Iranian athletes, artists, journalists, political figures, and health professionals paint a gloomier picture of the country’s worsening brain-drain situation.

In response, state media and officials have been seeking to disprove the wave of migration by calling migration reports into question and downplaying the statistics. The hardline daily newspaper, Kayhan, whose managing editor is directly named by Khamenei’s office, ran an article claiming that the cited migration figures were “falsehoods and an attempt by opposition media and enemies of Iran to dishearten people towards their country’s future and the Raisi administration.”

Following the disclosure of these shocking numbers, university professors were banned from writing letters of recommendation for students seeking positions in foreign universities. Some universities even stopped issuing English transcripts for students.

University professors were banned from writing letters of recommendation for students applying to foreign universities.

Among government officials, some MPs went so far as to submit a proposal that ultimately made them the target of mockery and ridicule. They recommended heavy departure taxes in a bid to make conditions for migration much more difficult.

[Scientific Innovation in Iran was Thriving, Sanctions Put a Stop to It]

To be sure, Iranian migration is deep-rooted and dates back to the 1979 Islamic Revolution, which brought the clergy to power. In recent years, unprecedented economic hardships caused by punishing US sanctions, economic mismanagement, extreme currency depreciation, rampant corruption, as well as growing political and social restrictions, have made Iranians significantly more motivated to consider leaving.

Meanwhile, a decline in the domestic birthrate has forced the Iranian government and parliament to encourage more births by promising housing, stock market shares, and unsecured loans (for which banks have no budget appropriation). Officials have also envisioned meddlesome policies and laws like toughening divorce regulations and scrapping contraceptive facilities in an attempt to force Iranian youth to get married and have children. Such policies, even if not consistently enforced, have only caused greater social disillusionment and disenchantment with no hopes for change.

Blocked Doors

Speaking on condition of anonymity, Roya, an electrical engineer with more than 10 years of experience in top Iranian companies, told Inside Arabia that the continuous currency depreciation results in a gradual capital loss. Therefore she sees emigration as the best choice for her despite its related hardship.

Ever since Raisi took office in August 2021, nepotism has increased.

Even with a high rate of academic education in Iran, and a growing number of women university graduates, many job-seekers are critical of the state monopoly and cronyism present in the distribution of public offices and management positions. Ever since Raisi took office in August 2021, nepotism has increased, with top jobs going to individuals with family connections to the conservative faction in power – regardless of credentials and experience.

Matin, who studied urban development in one of Iran’s top universities, has been working in the country for eight years. But several months ago, he started learning German in preparations to leave for Germany. He specifically notes that he and his colleagues have been denied minimum occupational facilities – and even job insurance – over these years.

“I would like so much to stay in my country and practice the job I like. But I have been hitting numerous obstacles in my personal and professional life. Whenever there was any suitable job offer, it would go to someone with close relatives within military or state bodies,” he said.

Although state organs have formulated a variety of plans to encourage Iranian elites to return home, regular changes in textbooks and curricula under the guise of “Islamization of universities,” changing laws, unstable education systems, purges of dissident university professors – which have accelerated under Raisi – and hiring of unqualified university instructors remain strong contributors to the migration of Iranians. Indeed, from March 2019 to March 2020, more than 900 qualified university professors left Iran.

Societal Split

Iranians emigrate generally for education, work, investment, or political asylum. Their main destinations are Western Europe, Turkey, the US, or Canada. Due to the difficulty of getting a work visa, those who are not migrating for education or do not hold a university degree try to register at lesser-known colleges and universities in a bid to find any way to leave Iran. Indeed, migration information centers and language schools, particularly for English and German, are thriving despite the stagnant economy.

Many Iranians choose to migrate without any cost-benefit analysis or having any economic justification for living abroad.

Although a limited number of Iranian applicants may be lucky enough to win scholarships and afford the costs of living in a foreign country, many choose to migrate without any cost-benefit analysis or having any economic justification for living abroad.

Amid such economic discontent, a growing number of middle-class Iranian households choose to sell their personal property – be it an apartment, car, or jewelry – to pay for their children’s migration in hopes of providing them with a better and brighter future. For those who have little means, the prospects of leaving are more dire.

Ultimately, as long as the ruling regime in Iran is not firmly determined to undertake broad-based reforms and improvements in both domestic and foreign policy, even the now expected restoration of the Nuclear Deal currently in negotiations, is unlikely to bring about any notable change to dissuade people from leaving their country.

What’s clear is that, were it not for ever-tougher immigration laws and bureaucratic hurdles put up by Western nations, there would have been an even faster rate of emigration among Iranians, leading to unquestionably dismal prospects for the country’s future economic growth and stability.